On Teams:  A Blog About Team Effectiveness

How is an effective team like an octopus?

Written by Scott Tannenbaum on .

Research has shown that an octopus' brain will signal to one of its arms to grab a clam or to several of its arms to swim away from danger, but each arm handles some of the details on its own. Octopus2

Several studies, including one published in Science, indicate that some information processing takes place in the arms, independent of the brain. This was uncovered in research that examined severed octopus legs in action (now there's a sentence I never thought I would write).

An octopus isn't a team but there is an interesting analogy to be made about teams and even organizations.

In a team, it can be helpful to establish the overall sense of direction and set goals centrally to ensure the team moves forward in a coordinated manner. Sometimes the leader needs to let the team know that it is time to swim to the right or grab some clams. But it can also be important to allow individual team members the flexibility to determine how best to attain the team's goals and to adapt based on "local knowledge." Consider these questions:

  • Where does your team's "brain" reside? To what extent is it centralized or distributed?
  • If it is distributed, is there enough central guidance to allow individual team members to move forward in a coordinated way? Or are your arms swimming in different directions and a little more central coordination is needed?
  • If it is primarily centralized, are you underutilizing the capabilities of individual team members? How do you enable team members to adapt to local or quickly changing conditions? How can you ensure that insights generated at the team's periphery, where for example customer contact occurs, are not overlooked?

Leading a team is often a balance between establishing a common sense of direction while simultaneously allowing appropriate individual autonomy. Like an octopus.

And don't worry, severed octopus arms do grow back.


# Adil Ibrahim 2015-07-14 16:15
I admire that you brought Science into this :) I feel that many leaders aren't quite able to let their teams function slightly independently because they haven't developed their teams' skills enough to make the best decisions in various situations. To enable leaders to empower teams, we need to expose them to a lot more training.
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# Scott 2015-07-15 09:08
Adil...thanks for weighing in.

Yes, and at times a negative cycle can emerge. A leader doesn't have time to prepare his team because he is so busy. But he isn't comfortable delegating anything until they are ready so he remains very busy; too busy to help team members get ready to assume new responsibilitie s.

I think that letting go can be very difficult for many leaders -- myself included!
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